{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
Babylonian Religion

The religion which the Jews of the Exile found in Babylon had roots which went back over two thousand years. The ancient Sumerian city-states were theoretically under the protection of patron deities. Semitic invaders brought a new set of gods into southern Mesopotamia. Sumerians, Semites, and other settlers were polytheistic and did not object to incorporating new gods and goddesses into their religious scheme. When alliances were made, or conquests achieved, the gods of the city-states were subject to new classifications. The god of a victorious state was considered to be the most powerful deity, for warfare was always waged on two levels. The earthly states were championed by their celestial deities, and the battles in the sky were accounted as real as the battles on earth. Assyrian kings did battle in the might of Asshur, and Babylonian rulers looked to Marduk as their guide and protector.

A modern logician has a difficult time with the religion of ancient Babylon and Assyria. When the Semites entered the Tigris-Euphrates Valley they found the Sumerians worshipping the mother goddess Inanna. This posed no problem, for they simply gave her the Semitic name Ishtar and worshipped her as devoutly as did their Sumerian neighbors. In practice, however, Inanna and Ishtar became two goddesses, for each had her devotees. The genealogies, or, more strictly, theogonies were arranged. Since Inanna, or Ishtar, was the chief goddess we would expect her to be the consort of the chief god. Who was this supreme deity? The people of Asshur, the Assyrians, would insist that their god was supreme, and the Babylonians would hail the power of Marduk. Thus Ishtar would be regarded as the wife of different gods, depending upon the city in which the claim was made.

There is, of course, a logic in this very illogical approach to religion. Each people thought its god supreme, and imputed to it those powers and attributes which are usually associated with a great god. To the Assyrians, Asshur was the god responsible for the creation of the universe; to the Babylonians it was Marduk who made all things. In each nation, however, there were numerous other gods who were worshipped. It is the fact of a common religious tradition, coupled with the concept of local patron deities, that produces the illogical pantheons of the eastern Fertile Crescent peoples. Heaven itself was divided into three parts, each assigned to one of the great deities.

During Sumerian times, the chief god was known as An, or Anu, the sky god who was regarded as father of the great gods. In "the heaven of Anu" the other deities gathered in times of festivity or sorrow. It was there that the gods whose earthly shrines were destroyed by flood found a place of refuge. Anu is represented in the cuneiform characters by a star, symbolic of both the god and his heavenly abode. Cult centers of Anu were located at Der in Akkad and at Uruk in Sumer where the temple known as E-anna ("the house of Anu") was located. An important temple to Anu was located in the girsu or holy quarter of Lagash.

Anu was remote from the world of men, and does not seem to have been a popular god. His worship was complemented, however, by that accorded to his daughter Ishtar, who made up for any lack in her father's popularity. Ishtar, the goddess of love, was worshipped along with Anu both at the E-anna of Uruk and the girsu of Lagash.

Until the rise of the Marduk cult in Babylon, Anu was reputed to be the supreme deity in the Tigris-Euphrates Vally. he possessed the symbols of kingship - scepter and diadem, staff and crown. All subordinate rule was responsible to him.

The second great god, honored alike by Sumerians and Semites, was Enlil or Bel. Bel is another from of the Semitic Baal, a word which means "Lord." Enlil-Bel was the lord, or ruler of earth. His abode was the "Great Mountain" in the heaven of Bel which united heaven and earth. As storm god he was "Lord of the winds." During Sumerian times his worship was centered at Nippur. Since his domain was the earth, Enlil was closer to the affairs of men than was Anu, his father in the theogony. Enlil is described as "the wise" and "the prudent" but he can, on occassion, bring suffering to the world of men. He defied the wishes of Ea and Ishtar and ordered the onset of the flood which destroyed man and beast. He was also deemed responsible for the destruction of Ur by the Elamites. Through Enlil-Bel, divine power was executed on earth.

Important changes took place in the Enlil clut when Marduk was recognized as supreme god in Babylon. Marduk assumed the name of Bel, and became known as Bel-Marduk. Enlil was then designated, "Bel the ancient." His wife was Belit, the feminine form of the name Bel.

The third of the great Sumerian gods was known as Enki, Semitic Ea. Enki ruled the waters upon which, according to the Babylonian cosmology, the terrestrial world floated. He bore the epithet, "Lord of the watery deep." Some traditions made Enki-Ea the creator of the world. In extravagant language he is called, "King of the abyss, Creator of everything, Lord of all." Like Anu he is designated as "father of the gods."

Enki-Ea was considered to be both wise and kindly disposed toward mankind. It was he who taught men the art of writing and geometry. From him man learned how to build temples and cities and to cultivate the soil. Magic, medicine, and divination were subject to his control. His kindness toward mankind was exhibited when he warned the Sumero-Babylonian Noah to build an ark as a place of safety in the impending flood. Enki's ancient cult center was at Eridu, at the head of the Persian Gulf.

Anu, Enlil and Ea formed a triad of great gods exercising power over air, earth, and water. There were, however, many other gods who demanded the worship and offerings of the people. Some of these had specific functions or were the embodiment of forces of nature. A second generation tried - Sin, the moon-god; Shamash, the sun-god; and Adad, the storm god, largely supplanted the older deitied in their popular affection.

The Mesopotamian world ascribed great importance to Sin, the moon god, whose waxing and waning governed the passing of the months. Divination and astrology were largely dependent on the moon, and were closely related to his worship. As with Enki-Ea, wisdom was associated with Sin. In Sumerian times, Sin bore the name Nanna. Both Ur and Haran were devoted to his worship.

Corresponding to Sin, the moon god, we find Shamash, the sun, known to the Sumerians as Utu. Shamash was considered to be the Son of Sin. Although Westerners might expect the relationship to be reversed, we must remember that the Semite begins his day with sunset. This is the order used in describing the creative days of Genesis: "And it was evening, and it was morning, day one" (Genesis 1:5b). Although welcomed at dawn when the light of day drives away the evil spirits thought to dwell in the darkness, as the day advances Shamash is looked upon as a foe. The heat of the sun parches the land. Activities must cease at midday lest sunstroke and death result from his activities in the hot regions of the Near East.

Shamash, as bringer of light, was also associated in the mind of the ancient Babylonians with justice. He is termed "the light of things above and things below" and "the supreme judge of heaven and earth who guides aright living creatures." The evil that can lurk under cover of darkness is forced into the open by the appearance of Shamash. As god of justice, it is Shamash who is depicted on the top of the stele containing the law code of King Hammurabi. He was worshipped at shrines in Larsa, in southern Babylonia, and at Sippar, farther north.

Adad, the storm god, was worshipped throughout the Near East. The Aramaeans knew him as Hadad, and his name appears in the Biblical Ben-hadad, the king of Damascus. As god of fertility, Adad was called "Lord of abundance, Irrigator of heaven and earth." His home was in the mountain heights from which he could thunder forth with lightning and rain. In the Babylonian flood story it was Adad who let loose the deluge which turned mankind into clay. Since man's life depended, in large measure, on the fertility which Adad could bring, he was a god whose worship was seldom neglected. In Syria and Palestine, Hadad was identified with Baal, was was "rider of the clouds" and through whom fertility was provided for man and beast as well as for the parched fields. Adad's consort was Shala, "lady of the ear of grain."

Fertility and reproduction in the Tigris-Euphrates valley were associated with Ishtar, the popular daughter of Anu. She was also the goddess of war. The Sumerian form of her name, Innana, means "Lady of heaven," and Innana-Ishtar was identified with the planet Venus. She was the great mother goddess of the anceint Near East and, throughout all the changes which the religion of Babylon and Assyria underwent, Ishtar always maintained her independent position. At one time or another she was considered to be the wife of the "great god" of almost every city in Mesopotamia. Her most famous shrine was in Uruk, Biblical Erech.

The priestly theologians of ancient Babylon attempted to breathe order into the confused picture of their historic pantheon which grew more complex with the passing of the years. They classified the status, rank, and function of each of the gods, and developed a hierarchy patterned after human affairs. Gods were grouped into families, and their servants and slaves are indicated. There were four thousand gods in all, many of whom had highly specialized functions. A few, however, will suffice to show the development of the religious life in ancient Babylonia.

During the earliest Sumerian period the lord of the girsu of Lagash was known as Ninurta, or Enurta. At that time he was a fertility god who was responsible for the annual flooding of the rivers. Early texts symbolize him by the plough, indicating his function of making agriculture possible. In time, however, another side of his character was emphasized. By the late Assyrian period he was symbolized by weapons and he became known as the god of battles.

Semitic Nusku, Sumerian Gibil, was the god of fire. He was invoked by magicians in their tasks of exorcism. They called upon Nusku to burn to death evil spirits and sorcerers. Nusku was also associated with worship, for he made burnt offerings possible.

Nergal had originally been a sun god, but as the destroyer of life (one attribute of the sun god), he went to the nether regions to found a kingdom for himself. There he became the god of pestilence and death. His domain was known as "the land of no return." His wife was Ereshkigal, the sister of Shamash and Ishtar. She had ruled the nether regions before the arrival of Nergal. On his arrival they became husband and wife. The nether regions were also populated by monsters with both human and animal forms.

The scribe of the gods was Nabu (Nebo), the patron of Borsippa, who was reputed to have great wisdom. The Table of Fate was in his keeping, and he had power to prolong or shorten life. Nebuchadnezzar's name, meaning, "Nebo has established the boundary," expresses faith in Nebo, identified as a son of Marduk, the great god of Babylon.

During the period of the First Dynasty of Babylon an important revolution took place in the religion of the country. A minor deity named Marduk was chosen as the principal god of the whole of Babylonia. Although the older deities were accorded their accustomed worship, Marduk, a son of Ea, was placed at the head of the pantheon. The Enuma Elish, which dates from this time, relates the way in which the gods and goddesses, terrified by the primordial monster, Tiamat (Chaos), appealed for help. The youthful Marduk, on condition that all acknowledge his supremacy, accepted the challenge, slew the monster, and from her corpse created the heaven and the earth. Thus the supremacy of the god of Babylon became acknowledged by the entire population. Since Marduk was the god of Babylon, this myth sought to convince the world that Babylon was the supreme nation, as it worshipped the supreme god. A similar development took place in Assyria where Asshur was acknowledged as the supreme god. The worship of Marduk or Asshur did not lessen the importance of the other deities, however. It seems illogical to us, but the temples and shrines of the pantheon were as busy as ever. The only change was in the new honors due to Marduk. Polytheism can be very tolerant, and the Babylonians did not strive after logic in their religion.

A faithful son of Ishtar, the mother goddess, bore the name Tammuz, Sumerian Dumu-zi, "faithful son." Tammuz was a god of vegetation who disappeared each year in the last summer and returned (i.e., was resurrected) the following spring. Tammuz was the suffering god whose career paralleled the natural seasons. With the deadly summer heat he left the earth, but the life-giving springtime saw his triumphant return. In the Greco-Roman world he was worshipped as Adonis, a name which is a variant of the Semitic Adon, lord, or master.

In addition to the great gods of the Babylonian pantheon, each individual of latter-day Babylon looked to a personal god who was thought to be his protector and provider - a kind of "guardian angel" who never left his charge except when the person was guilty of grievous sin. In the early stages of Assyrian and Babylonian thought, the king alone was the favorite of a special deity, but by the beginnings of the Old Babylonian Empire this distinction was enjoyed by commoners as well. The faith of the Babylonian in his personal gods in exemplified by names which individuals bore. We meet people who bear names meaning: "My god hath hearkened unto me," "My god is my father," "My god is my refuge."

The colossal winged bulls which guarded the approaches to Assyrian and Babylonian palaces were not solely decorative. They exemplified the good genies, or spirits, and served as guards for the protection of palaces or city gates. They had their counterpart, however, in the evil genies who sought to bring harm to mankind.

The evil genies were thought to be responsible for the strife which enters human relations. They entered houses even when the door was bolted and barred. They set family members at strife with one another. They might turn everything in the house upside down, enter the stable and injure or kill the animals. If they found a man in sin without the protection of his personal god, they might enter that man and "possess" him. The man could not escape this evil genie, for the records assure us, "The man who hath not god as he walketh in the street, the demon covers him as a garment."

The origin of the genies is somewhat obscure. The good ones, fewer in number, were descended from the great gods who continued to be worshipped in Babylon. The evil genies, however, were traced back to the evil gods whom Marduk destroyed in order to free the other gods from the evil which they purposed. At times the evil genies were described as children of Bel or Anu, although their mother was thought to be a goddess of the nether regions. On occassion, however, even the offspring of good gods such as Ea and his wife Damkina might become evil genies.

In addition to the offspring of the gods, whom we have called genies, the Babylonian felt himself surrounded by ghosts, or spirits of men whose lives had passed unhappy on earth. The ghosts had been cheated out of happiness in this life. Some of them had died violent deaths. All experienced what we term frustration. Nursing their grief, they were determined to torment the living.

The Wisdom of the Babylonians < | Babylonian Religion | > The Babylonian Priesthood

{Old Testament History}

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.